Thursday, February 28, 2013

Starting From Seed

We started our first seeds indoors yesterday. We have been cooped up for nearly a week now with one or another family member fighting some nasty flu-like virus, so this was a nice little escape for us healthier ones:).

I followed seed starting directions found in a recent issue of Mother Earth News. Basically we:

  • Used a pencil to punch three holes in some small paper cups, then filled them to the top with seed germinating mix. 

  • Planted each cup with either 3 Red Salad Bowl lettuce seeds or 3 Kale Vates seeds. We left the lettuce uncovered, as per directions. The Kale got covered with 1/4 inch of the germinating mix. 

  • Watered the cups and set them in a large plastic container. We used craft sticks to label our varieties.

  • Draped the container loosely with plastic wrap to help keep the seeds warm. 
  • Set the container in a sunny spot in the laundry room where it will hopefully stay warm enough for germination. 

Now we are just in wait-and-water mode. Once I see some sprouts, they will go under our grow lights until they are ready to move out to the cold frame.

It is so nice to be gardening again:)

Linking up with Simple Lives Thursday

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sugaring-Round 2!

We had more success this time, than the last time. Thanks to a bit of a wild, wet weekend most of our burning wood got soaked. So we were faced with a full barrel of sap and no real way to boil.

I was getting pretty desperate-sap does spoil after all! So I tried putting some sap in our two big crock-pots and some in the rice cooker. The crock-pots worked very, very slowly. Not worth it at all. I was kind of surprised. Since they always manage to dry out my dinner, I expected better out of them;). The rice cooker worked pretty well but there is only so much sap it can take!

So we resorted to this setup.

A propane-fired camp stove  propped up on the gas grill. The big barrel is a food-safe storage container we use to hold sap. Incidentally, restaurant supply stores are great! We found both the storage container and the big pan at ours.

We tried just the gas grill first but...since nothing is ever easy;).... it wouldn't start. So we busted out the camp stove.  I do not think this is the most efficient way or the most charming way to boil sap, but in a pinch it did the trick.

 Our process went like this:

Filled the evaporator pan about half-full with sap and started the grill.

Filled up a saucepan with sap and brought it in to warm on top of the wood stove, since adding cold sap on top of boiling sap slows everything down.

About every half-hour, added the warmed pot of sap to the boiling sap and brought in another saucepan of sap to warm.

Repeated for much of the day until the barrel was empty.

Then we boiled for another couple of hours and brought the rest inside to finish off on the stove. We brought it just to the point where small bubbles covered the entire surface of the liquid.  There is good picture of bubbly sap here, to show you what that looks like. Scroll down to "Complete the Boiling". In our experience, when the syrup has come to a nice full boil like this, it is done. It takes longer than you think! At the same time, you do need to watch carefully to avoid over-boiling!

We let it cool a bit, then transferred it to jars.

Not a bad haul so far. This is from about 20-25 gallons of sap. There is still some sediment on the bottom, which is normal, but we will need to filter it to make it even prettier.

It was a good day, but I can't say I am sorry to have a few days off from boiling! If you want more details, the two books I referenced in this post are great to have on hand. Also the Tap My Trees website is a good place to get started.

Linking up with Homestead Barn Hop

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Meat Chicken Debate

To raise meat chickens or not to raise meat chickens, that is the question. Do we want to do them or not? I have been considering this for years. I might be ready.

 I am the type to consider things for a good long while before jumping in. Not all things, but some things. If I decide I don't like the way the living room furniture is, I will re-arrange it right then and there, whether I have help or not. If I see a new book I must have, chances are I will order it right that second, before I can feel guilty about buying yet another book. I am weird like that.

Getting to the point of deciding to get laying chickens was easily a three year process. First, I checked out every book I could find at the library. Next, I had lots and lots of late night discussions of pros and cons with the husband (pretty sure he was sick of the subject after the first week). Then, I talked to every single person I knew who had chickens and asked every question I could think of. After that,  I ordered a couple more chicken books to read.

 And then one day we just made up our minds to do it and placed an order for a dozen chicks.  I did have a brief moment of panic, but mostly it has all been good. I can't make up my mind about the meat chickens though!

Pros- or why we should get meat chickens!

1.  We eat chicken. So why not raise our own? It seems like the right thing to do. We will know where they came from. We will feed them what we want. We will give them good lives, much more humane than supermarket chickens get.

2.   It seems like a major step in my little homesteading project- to raise meat. Different than vegetables, or getting eggs from chickens. Kind of humbling, I guess. More solemn. In a good way, if you know what I mean.

3. We would have chicks around more often. And chicks are just plain fun:).

4.   I have three out of four kids, plus the husband, in support of the venture. Majority wins?

 Cons- or maybe this is a bad idea??

1.  We will eventually have to part with the chickens. Not sure how that will go, even if I specifically try not to allow attachments. I don't want to scar the kids for life! Will they be?

2.  Raising chickens for eggs, raising vegetables and fruit...those seem like such happy little projects. Raising chickens that we will later kill.....I don't know. Not as happy/warm/cozy.

3.  My kids tend to be a bit sensitive,  okay, a lot sensitive about such things. No matter how much I explain that the chicken on their salad is in fact an actual chicken, will they even eat the chicken they remember as a fluff-ball? Or will I have a freezer full of chicken and a table full of crying kids?

4.  One of the four kids has zero interest in this project. He is seven. He is sensitive. He's a sweetheart. I do not want to upset him. It may be better to wait a couple years and see if he becomes amenable. I don't know.

Conclusion, or not

So in conclusion, I really just do not know what to do! I would like to decide soon though, so I can get in order in for early May, giving us time to get them processed before our late summer vacation.

 Decisions, decisions:) Aaargh!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Sugaring Time!

It's that time of year again in New England-sap boiling time! If we are lucky and don't screw things up like we did last year-it's syrup making time! Let me tell you though, making maple syrup is a royal PITA.


Sure the buckets look pretty on the trees.

And I do, really, love going out there and emptying the sap buckets in the afternoons. And boiling is actually pretty fun. I daresay I enjoy the excuse to escape the chaos of a homeschooling-with-four-kids morning to go load up the fire with more wood and check on the sap.

It's the end part that gets to me. When it starts getting on towards dusk and I know it's time to put out the fire and bring the batch in and finish it up on the stove. That part takes forever. And then there is the watching and the nervous checking of the books to try to figure out just when we should stop the boiling and call it syrup. Because if you pull it too early you end up with very watery sap/syrup. We did that last year. And if you boil it too long you end up with maple sugar. We did that last year too.

This year, we have only done one batch and I did manage to turn it into sugar. No, not intentionally. But the book said the syrup should reach 7 degrees above the boiling point of water. The problem there was that I was boiling in a large pot and I didn't have the depth needed for an accurately working candy thermometer by the time it got close. So basically, I had no clue what the temperature was. Apparently over that magical 7 degrees.

The other problem was that the books all said the syrup should "apron" off the spatula. I make jam all the time, so to me, "apron" means it will slide off slowly in a kind of clumpy, oozy way.

Yeah. Well, if you let it get to that point it will look great at first.  Then it will crystallize like mad when you start to filter it. Luckily, my husband was able to rescue the batch by adding in some boiling water and reboiling it. This time we stopped when the syrup left the spatula in a stream rather than in individual drops. No aproning. It looked too thin, but thickened right up. I didn't take a picture of that first batch, which is too bad. It was really pretty! I had it on my pancakes for my birthday breakfast:).

So we had some success! But man, it takes A LOT of sap and A LOT of work to make maple syrup. Now I know why it is so darn expensive! I am hoping the process gets easier as we go.

Round 2 is up this week!

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Seeds Are Here!

My seed order came in today. I am so excited! A box of seeds is one of the best Valentine's Day presents-not better than chocolate or flowers or the sweet valentines from the kiddos-but still pretty darn good. I checked over the packing list and it seems that everything arrived, except one of the lettuces which is back-ordered.

We also ordered horseradish and seed potatoes from the same company but those will ship a bit later, closer to planting time. We ordered from Harris Seeds this year, because I felt like trying a new place. They offer a free gardening guide when you order, which is actually quite helpful. It has information about spacing, planting depth, thinning, and how to start each plant. I took it with me to the kids' swim class this afternoon and enjoyed flipping through it.

 I also started my garden journal today. I am just using a simple notebook and making a page for each vegetable planted. I have never done this before, but have often wished I had a record of which varieties we have tried in past years. The journal will also be a place to record successes, failures, and planting notes, as well as thoughts about next year's garden. When it comes time to order seeds, my brain turns to mush and I cannot remember how many beans we planted last year or whether we had enough cilantro. So this should help, if I can remember to use it.

 I'm pretty excited about all this! It looks like the first order of business will be to put some sort of cold frame together, hopefully in the next few weeks. Then we can plant up some lettuce and kale!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Ongoing List of Farm Ideas to Try

A list of things I would eventually love to add to our little farm...this list is a work in progress, as I am always thinking up new things I want to try. This lifestyle really feels like a lifetime pursuit, not something that will ever feel "finished". Most days I am content for our little homestead to unfold slowly, giving us time to focus on one or two new things at a time. Still, I can't help dreaming!

1. Fruit Trees-apples, pears, apricot, maybe cherry. I often wish we had put these in years ago so we could be harvesting now, but hindsight is 20-20, right?

2. Sheep-not sure if my dear husband will agree, but I would just love a pair-or two- of sheep. They just seem oh-so-farmy. And I would love to learn to spin their wool!

3.  Bees-Not sure why, but every year I seriously consider getting a hive or two-then I panic and back out. The whole beekeeping thing just seems so very complicated. I think I am getting closer to just diving in though:).

4.  Blackberries. We tried and failed at these before. I would love to try again.

5.  Asparagus. Love the idea of growing some perennial vegetables. We are putting in horseradish this year. Maybe asparagus the next?

6.  Meat chickens. Again, something I often consider, but haven't actually got the nerve to do. Mainly because whenever I bring it up my 12 year-old daughter practically has hysterics at the idea. Sigh. As if the chickens we buy at the store didn't used to be alive!

7.  Turkeys. But see #6, except hysterics would probably be worse since I suspect turkeys have more personality than meat chickens.

8.  Compost pile. I know, I can't believe we don't have one-what kind of wanna-be farmers are we? But now, with all these goats and chickens, we're going to have to start.

9.  Container Potatoes. Actually, I might try this one this very year. I do love a homegrown potato-but man do I hate trying to dig them up without gouging them all to heck.

10.  Mushroom Growing. I spend inordinate amounts of time staring at those mushroom kits they sell in seed catalogs. Must try this at some point!

11. Pressure Canning. I have a water-bath canner and use it often, but I would like to be able to can those low-acid vegetables since my efforts at freezing them always turn out nasty, icy, blocks of mush.

12. Chest Freezer. It just feels like something you ought to have on a farm to help preserve all that stuff you spend all your time growing!

13. Greenhouse. Oh, every winter I wish for a little greenhouse to putter around and start my lettuce in. Now probably, if I actually had one marooned in the snowdrifts out there, I would still not want to get off my butt and go out in the cold- but it would sure look pretty sitting in the yard.

14. More Raised Beds. I love my raised beds. I think my entire garden needs to be compromised of them.

15. Cold-Frame. Kind of like a little mini-greenhouse, but I figure cheaper and more do-able.

16. A Pond. Not sure we have the proper space to dig one. But I'd love to see my ducks out there, instead of in their little plastic wading pool-which is a major PITA to empty by the way.

17.  More Blueberry Bushes. I don't think I am cut out to be a blueberry farmer. Our plants have been soooo slow to get going. I need more blueberries.

And....this will be continued, I am sure!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

2013: Year of the Garden

I really tried to make my garden plans realistic this year. I fear I have failed. I blame the fact that we had a two day blizzard going on while I made my seed order. But also, I have decided this should be "The Year of the Garden". I really, really love adding to the homesteading type things we do, but it's hard not to go too far too fast, so in general we have tried to just do one major thing each year.  Looks like this year, the focus is going to be on growing more plants, instead of animals, like the last few years.

2010 was The Year of the Chickens. We built a coop and got a dozen layers. I really consider this year the start of our little farm, though we had always kept a small vegetable garden before that.


2011 was The Year of The Ducks and Guineas (and More Chickens). We got four Cayuga ducklings. We have lost one since then. They are awesome layers and the eggs are great for baking with. We also got 9 more chickens- one of which turned out to be a surprise rooster. Unfortunately, the younger batch do not lay nearly as well as the older batch! We also got four guinea hens, to help control ticks, and because I thought they were neat. Those birds were pretty much a dismal failure at doing anything useful except  making a ton of racket. I no longer find them "neat".  The male was aggressive and had to be gotten rid of. And now we are down to just one guinea! Plus three ducks, 16 chickens, and a rooster.

2012 was The Year of the Goats. We have three. They are not for milking, or eating. The hope is that they will provide some brush control, helping to keep our field clear of wild blackberries. And of course they are just super cute. We love our goats!

2013, then, is going to be The Year of the Garden. We will be planting rhubarb and raspberries, in addition to the blueberries we already have. And then:

Tomatoes & cherry tomatoes
Herbs-parsley, basil, dill, cilantro, chamomile
Green Beans
Cucumber-slicing & picklers
Lettuce and Microgreens
Sugar Pod Peas
Pumpkins-mini & jack o'lantern-sized
Swiss Chard
Zucchini & Summer Squash
Butternut Squash
Pak Choi
Nasturtiums (edible flowers!)

Most of these thing we have tried in the past. The garlic, horseradish, kale, Swiss chard, butternut squash, Pak Choi, and nasturtiums are new to us. We are planning to put in a few more raised beds and might also try a cold-frame for the first time. We may end up starting some seeds indoors, not sure about that yet.  Last year, we had a farm share for most of our vegetables but this year we decided it was just too inconvenient to get to the farm every week since it is a half-hour drive. So that is one reason we are doing a bigger garden this year.  The other reason is- I just feel like it:). I say that now, ask me again in June when I'm up to my knees in weeds!